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The First Branch of Yoga: The Yamas

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

The First Branch of Yoga: The Yamas

Path in the Fog by Claude Monet

The first of the eight rungs or limbs is the yamas, which can be considered as universal morality. The practice of yamas lays the foundation from which to develop all the other subtle practices. Yamas serve as moral, ethical and societal guidelines to lead a conscious, honest, and ethical life. There are five yamas or positive guidelines that help us to behave and relate to our surroundings and environment, and to achieve oneness with it. Patanjali considered the five yamas as universal vows and preached that in order to have a harmonious life they be practiced on all levels: by way of thoughts, actions, and words. The five yamas are: 
  • ahimsa=nonviolence
  • satya=truthfulness
  • aparigraha= noncovetousness/non-possessiveness/non-hoarding
  • asteya=nonstealing
  • brahmacharya= continence/sexual restraint
For more on the yamas in general, see Nina's post Yama Drama: Considering the First Branch of Yoga

Ahimsa: Himsa in Sanskrit means violence, which  is defined as the intentional use of force or power on self or against a person or a group that results in a physical/psychological harm, mental disturbance, injury or death. Going by this definition, himsa can mean both physical and mental violence perpetrated on self or others. Thus, there is no difference between a person who is harboring severe judgment and negativity towards self or others and a person who walks with a gun into a classroom and randomly shoots at the students. Both have committed himsa or violence, albeit to different degrees. Ahimsa (non-violence), is the opposite of himsa and refers to non-harming or non-injury, that is, physical, mental, and emotional non-violence towards self and others. Individuals who always experience natural inner peace and a non-harming attitude and who have given up on their hostilities, ill will, or aggression are practicing ahimsa. For more on ahimsa/nonviolence, see my post Ahimsa: Non Violence and Healthy Aging

Satya: Satya is defined in Sanskrit as "sate hitam satyam," which translates to “The path to truth is ultimate truth itself.” Thus, one who is always truthful in actions, speech, and thoughts, his or her will is naturally fulfilled since such a behavior allows a natural flow of goodness or positive feelings. Truth is considered divine and truth connotes purity. If we start living in truth, we are free from all kinds of emotional turmoil. For more on satya and its effects on healthy aging, check out my post Satya: The Truth about Lies and Healthy Aging. 

Aparigraha: Aparigraha means to limit possessions to what is necessary or important and taking what is truly necessary and no more. Hoarding is not just about accumulating material possessions but also about hoarding/holding thoughts and emotions that affect our normal mindset and thinking process. We tend to fill our minds with fear, worry, anxiety, grief, anger, rage, jealousy, judgments among others and we do not let go of these emotions. Over time, these emotions build up and accumulate as unexpressed or suppressed emotions that can trigger mental and/or physical pathological conditions. For more on this topic, see my post Aparigraha: Non-Hoarding and Healthy Aging.Asteya: Desire or greed for material possessions can cause an individual to steal, overspend or even going into debt that is not only stressful for the individual but can ruin the family as well. The desire for material possession simply means that the individual is dissatisfied with what he/she possesses and is constantly looking to acquire more. Since the fundamental cause of acquiring more is desire, we should try to overcome our desires gradually through the regular practice of yoga.

Brahmacharya: This is a complex topic for our culture. While the original meaning in the Yoga Sutras certainly meant no sex at all for an individual on his/her path, I am not sure if this is how Patanjali would have truly interpreted. Sanskrit terms can have different contextual meanings and I like to interpret brahmacharya in two ways. First, I interpret brahmacarya as sexual responsibility. Recklessness in one’s sexual conduct can also lead to lies, violence, jealousy and pain, which leads the individual astray from the path of yoga. Second, brahma=divine/superior/heavenly and acharaya=routines/practices/tasks. So brahmacharya could also be interpreted as heavenly practices or simply put “good living practices”(GLP).  GLP is being honest, respectful, forgiving, kind, and selfless. People practicing GLP live a fulfilling life as they do not have any personal or selfish interest. Because of these virtues or positive character traits, an individual is committed to doing the right thing no matter what the personal cost, and does not bend to impulses, urges or desires, but acts according to values and principles. GLP helps us to attain wisdom, and when there is wisdom, there is no conflict. GLP helps individuals to turn into agents of social change.

In conclusion, the yamas may seem obscure and impenetrable, but I believe the principles of yamas are worth investigating. Yamas contain essential advice for daily/good living. As they offer a map or guidance that allows us to have enhanced emotional and mental wellbeing and a more fulfilling and meaningful life, yamas serve as the GPS for our lives. Practicing the yamas leads to greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment not only for the individual but also to those around him/her.

And that is the ultimate truth!


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